Utilizing Social Action Projects in the Virtual Classroom
Vicki L. Burns, Assistant Teaching Professor, Florida International University
COVID-19 has impacted every person in almost all areas of their lives. And although we find ourselves in a new year, we are still facing many of the challenges from 2020. One of those challenges relates to virtual learning. Finding ways to engage a bunch of black boxes on a screen can be quite a daunting task. I have found that asking students to participate in group social action projects has been a lifeline. It’s very easy during the pandemic to shy away from assigning social action group work, but I believe it is even more important now.
All of us are experiencing some sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, or helplessness. Our students are feeling the same. I believe it is our responsibility to provide an academic environment that channels those difficult emotions into productive and meaningful assignments. Students are unable to “solve” or “fix” COVID-19, but is there something in their lives they can positively impact? Can you find a way to connect that with something in your syllabus?
In my campus sexual assault class this past semester, I assigned students to groups and each time we met on Zoom, they spent a portion of class time in breakout rooms with their fellow group members. The group project assignment was to create a sexual assault prevention program to be implemented on our campus that could address the current needs of our student body. In order to learn about those needs, students interviewed fellow students through essentially a “needs assessment.” They were able to ask questions using social media polling, WhatsApp, Zoom conferencing, and Qualtrics-type surveys that they would post on their social media accounts. They used this information to create an intervention plan, and they reached out to on-campus staff to assist them. For example, one group decided they wanted to focus on students with disabilities. They reached out to our Disability Resource Center (DRC) staff who not only emailed with them but also set up a Zoom call to answer their questions. The DRC staff was excited about their ideas and agreed to adding a tab on their website dedicated to sexual assault prevention specifically for students with disabilities.
I would not underestimate how much our students need to feel some power right now, and these types of assignments can be woven into all types of course topics. If you’d like to expand your reach to outside of campus, students can brainstorm solutions that might be useful in their previous high school, their favorite non-profit, or another institution within their community. Students should always collaborate with appropriate stakeholders and co-develop solutions that are genuinely useful to people on the ground.
Students shared with me that despite the challenging circumstances in the world, they felt engaged and impassioned because they got to immerse themselves in something that had tangible benefits for their community. Feelings of powerlessness abated just a little bit, because perhaps they could leave their campus better than the way they had found it.